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Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Olympics: Athletes to be briefed on virus

New Zealand Olympic Committee officials will be getting around the country in the next month to brief athletes on the risks associated with the outbreak of the Zika virus in South America. Photo / AP
New Zealand Olympic Committee officials will be getting around the country in the next month to brief athletes on the risks associated with the outbreak of the Zika virus in South America. Photo / AP

New Zealand Olympic Committee officials will be getting around the country in the next month to brief athletes on the risks associated with the outbreak of the Zika virus in South America.

The NZOC is holding workshops with the athletes on the long-list for selection for the Rio Games during February and March, with concerns around the spread of the mosquito-borne virus chief among the list of issues. The World Health Organisation this week declared the outbreak of the Zika virus, which has been linked to clusters of brain-damaged babies born in Brazil, constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.

NZOC public affairs and communications director Ashley Abbott said the organisation has not had any athletes approach it directly over concerns about the health risks of travelling to the region.

"The Government is saying expectant mothers should not travel to Rio and we fully support that stance," said Abbott.

"Expectant mothers aside, we don't want any of our athletes getting sick. The symptoms may be mild, but that can have a big impact on performance, so we need to be well-prepared. We'll be talking to [the athletes] directly about the risks and what precautions they need to take when they are competing over there."

Rio 2016 organisers have said there is no chance the August Games will be cancelled. They will be targeting the mosquitoes' breeding grounds in the run-up to the Games and there is also hope there will be fewer mosquitoes in August as the month is cooler and drier.

But some Brazilian health experts warn the scientific ignorance about Zika parallels the Aids crisis in the 1980s.

"Back then, the scientific and medical community did not know what was going on until many people had died and considerable research had been undertaken," Wilson Savino, the director of the Oswaldo Cruz Institute in Rio de Janeiro, told the Guardian.

Abbott said Zika has been a major area of focus for NZOC medical staff, led by Dr Bruce Hamilton, who are dedicating a lot of time to getting their systems right.

As there is no vaccine or treatment, the only prevention is to avoid being bitten. Athletes are advised to use insect repellents, cover up with long sleeves and pants and keep windows and doors shut.

The New Zealand women's sevens team will be the first to put those procedures into action when they head to Brazil this month for the second round of the women's sevens series in Sao Paulo. The team will also hold a pre-tournament training camp in Rio.

Coach Sean Horan said none of his players have shown reluctance to travel to the region.

"The girls are pretty meticulous around those sorts of things, so there are a lot of questions being asked so they are prepared. They're all pretty confident with the plan we've got in place."

Sports such as golf and tennis, where the Games fall outside the realm of their "pinnacle events", appear the most likely to see big name withdrawals should health officials be unable to get on top of the viral outbreak.

Kiwi golfer and world No 1 Lydia Ko was more concerned for people who have been hit by the virus.

"First of all we are more thinking about the people who are affected by it rather than what is going to happen [with the Olympics]," Ko said.

"We still have eight months until the Olympics. It's something we have got to keep looking at and monitor but for now, I guess that is all we can do."

- NZ Herald

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